Thursday, January 29, 2015

Principles of Sowing and Reaping for the Suzuki Parent: Misguided Parental Approaches in Music Study

Are You Sowing the Wrong Seeds?

There are some seeds that you can unwittingly sow that will bear a poor harvest in the future. This post examines four misguided parental approaches that may produce unintended consequences in the future.

1. Cutting Corners

Let’s say the teacher gives a challenging but doable assignment. Sometimes, the student comes back the next week and the parent has decided that the assignment was not realistic. Maybe the parent thought, “Was it really necessary to do the exercise 10 times a day?"

I am not talking about the difficult practice weeks when you or your child gets sick. I am talking about something more subtle. It’s where the parent decides consciously or unconsciously that it’s just too much work. This can unintentionally undermine the teacher.

Your child will succeed the most when you and your teacher are allies with a unified front.

More importantly, if you cut corners on posture, review, or polishing a piece to get to the next one, it ultimately cheats your child. Yes, you may get short-term relief. But in the end, it will not be harvest that you really want.

Sow seeds with your child that communicate that hard assignments require extra perseverance and creative thinking. Work to clearly understand the assignment and then follow through at home to the best of your ability. It does not have to be perfect. It’s the thoughtful, diligent, and consistent effort that is important.

If you are experiencing practice resistance, discuss this with your teacher. Look at some of these suggestions from an interview with parenting expert Noël Janis-Norton.

2. Misguided Praise

Your child needs a tremendous amount of positive reinforcement as they learn to play an instrument. Your child absolutely needs to know that you love them regardless of how well they play their instruments. Unfortunately, parents can unknowingly praise children in a way that creates dependence or “praise junkies".

Comments such as, “Good boy” or Good job” praise the person or outcome rather than the process or effort. This can lead to risk-aversion in the future or an unhealthy dependence on approval.

Ask yourself, am I praising the outcome or the effort? 

Praise things that your child can concretely repeat. For example, “I noticed that you kept your eyes on your bow for the whole song.” Think of comments that show your child an action that is specific, concrete, and repeatable. This is very different from saying, “That was nice!”

Find ways to compliment and encourage the effort, concentration, and focus. This pays higher dividends in the long term. “I can tell that felt tricky to you. You really worked hard to try that new way to move your fingers.”

I used to say that I was proud of students. Now I catch myself and try to say, “I hope you are proud of yourself for how hard you practiced for your performance."

3. Over-scheduling

Parents feel so much pressure to have their children in multiple activities. As a teacher, I experience that some students consistently arrive to lessons tired, unsettled, and unfocused because cello is just one of many activities squeezed into a puzzle of scheduling mania.

I completely respect that parents want to give their children all the opportunities and experiences that they can. Yet, involvement to the point of over-scheduling may not be the panacea of cultivation that it appears to be.

If your child participates in so many activities that he or she cannot pursue excellence in those endeavors, you may be communicating that quantity of activity is more important than quality of attention.

As you evaluate schedules and activities, think about how to communicate to your child that pursuing excellence is important. Doing something well is valuable. This may mean cutting back on the number of activities so that your child experiences joy in the process and has the opportunity to excel.

But, if you do less, are you depriving your child?

Rather than depriving your child, consider that you are giving them a different kind of gift. You are giving them the gift of joy as they experience true mastery.

When a student has the opportunity to excel, that child experiences a genuine and growing self-confidence as he sees his skill and ability grow. This allows a child to enjoy mastery as they have the time, energy, and attention to excel in his endeavors. Perhaps less really is more.

4. Unhealthy Comparisons

As I am finishing up these posts, I am adjusting to motherhood with our six-week old son Ethan. I find myself wondering if he is gaining weight appropriately and developing as he should. Although a new parent, I can already relate with the desire to know how Ethan is doing relative to other children. For example, should I be concerned that his head size is only in the 40th percentile?

Sometimes parents ask questions that reveal their concerns. "Why is Jennifer so much further ahead in the Suzuki book than my daughter? They started lessons at the same time.”

Parents want to know that their child is on track and succeeding, which is a natural desire. The problem is when this desire morphs into an unhealthy comparison with other children. Unfortunately, unhealthy comparisons lead to discouragement for the parent, pressure for the child, and a sense of competition within a studio.

Sometimes it is helpful to bring concerns like this to a teacher. Your teacher may have helpful insights for you. But be careful how you frame thoughts and questions like this in front of your child. Children pick up on parental disappointment and worry, and can sense the subtle comparisons. I have seen students’ countenances fall as parents make comparing comments in front of them.

Your child will feel more joy and freedom if you choose to focus on helping your individual child succeed to the best of her abilities. Your child has her own individual rate of growth. Our job as teacher and parent is to encourage each child’s own growth rate. Don’t worry about where someone else’s child is in comparison. Focus on helping your child learn and grow.

How can you create an environment where your child is free to learn and excel at his own pace?

Guest post written by Kathleen Bowman. Kathleen is a performer and Suzuki cello teacher based in Saratoga Springs, NY. You can find out more about her on her website.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Principles of Sowing and Reaping for the Suzuki Parent: We Cannot Reap What We Do Not Sow

Perhaps no one told you how much work it is to be a Suzuki parent. Or, maybe you were informed, but only experience itself has clarified how long and arduous the journey is. It can feel like more than you bargained for, especially in the early stages of the Suzuki journey where so much time and energy is spent in the pre-twinkle process.

Maybe your child is past the early stages, but he is now experiencing a plateau. Your child was progressing well, and now it seems that he isn’t making progress.

How do we persevere through these challenges?

Seeds Won’t Sow Themselves

It seems archaic now, but imagine a farmer without fancy machinery, forced to sow the seeds in his
field by hand. It’s a lot of work. Maybe he has to sow the entire field on foot. Long days, exhausting, dirty work. He has to sow more seeds than you might imagine, because not all the seeds will take root. The farmer may even have a time crunch of getting seeds sown before it's too late in the season.

Much of what you do on a daily basis in practicing with your child is like sowing seeds. I find that parents are often frustrated by this. Because we live in a results driven society, we have almost become immune to the fact that some things are still old-fashioned.

Nothing can replace smart, consistent, hands-on practice in acquiring musical skill. Your job is not to look for the results. Your job is to sow the seeds. It’s a process.

Taking Shortcuts and Skimpy Sowing

Unfortunately, shortcut the sowing, scatter only a few seeds, and at harvest time, you will be disappointed.

There are times when I wish that I could bypass the sowing and just get to the harvest. At these times, I am tempted to skimp on sowing - the daily listening and practicing - and merely hope for the best. Skimpy sowing looks like not fully engaging in practice. It can look like a lack of diligence, a lack of repetition, or more subtly, a lack of attention and focus.

In contrast, bountiful sowing may take the form of experimenting with different kinds of practice, routines, and even games to engage your child. It looks like fully engaging in practice assignments. It involves employing one’s full attention to the task at hand, and doing enough repetitions that the body automatically and easily accomplishes the task.

Sowing isn’t fun. It’s dirty. It’s tiring. It doesn’t look like you did anything. When a farmer looks over a freshly sown field, it probably looks the same as it did before.

Sowing musical seeds with your child may feel the same way. Lots of effort without lots of tangible evidence. I sense the frustration from parents and can empathize. I experience this in my own musical learning process. A really productive practice session may feel mundane. Perhaps it was a lot more like getting dirty in the field.

It feels like work.

We Always Reap in a Different Season

Farmers know that if you don’t plant seeds, there will be no harvest at harvest time. That’s the discouraging news of the sowing and reaping principle. You have to sow in order to reap.

Sometimes, parents express their disappointment in a lack of results according to their timetable. Sometimes, they have been unwilling to do the right sowing or they have not done it long enough.

But more often than not, they are looking for the harvest in the same season that they sow.

You never reap in the same season that you sow.

Demanding Growth

If you are demanding results (harvest), you are going to be frustrated. The process of acquiring a skill is often not linear. Your child may need to practice 500 hundred bow holds before they can easily, efficiently, and comfortably hold the bow to make a good tone. They may need to do it 1000 times. That is a lot of sowing of bow holds. If you desire that your student be able to play artistically and with a beautiful tone in the future, they need that strong, supple bow hold. It’s worth the sowing.

Consider that your lesson times are primarily your teacher showing you and your child how to sow the right seeds for success that week. It’s the parents’ or older student’s primary job to sow those seeds at home. One lesson a week will not produce much musical skill. It’s the daily sowing over a long period of time that produces something amazing.

Robert Louis Stevenson insightfully concluded,

“I consider the success of my day based on the seeds I sow, not on the harvest that I reap.”

Can you identify the various and diverse seeds your child needs in order to harvest a fruitful musical experience? In what areas do you need to persevere in sowing and trust the process?

Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

Guest post written by Kathleen Bowman. Kathleen is a performer and Suzuki cello teacher based in Saratoga Springs, NY. You can find out more about her on her website.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Principles of Sowing and Reaping for the Suzuki Parent: 5 Steps to Beginning Suzuki Success by Preparing the Soil

Last school year, I started a group of 4-5 year old students in a pre-twinkle cello class. One mother actively ignited her daughter Ella’s interest in the cello before enrolling in the program. Over the course of a few months, she helped Ella prepare to engage in a new learning process. They observed lessons, listened to cello music, talked about the cello, and actively built Ella’s excitement - all before starting lessons.

This experience allowed me to see how much a parent can cultivate their child’s interest, motivation, and readiness. It gave me a new appreciation for the parents’ role in preparing young children for a positive Suzuki experience.

Here are five ways to prepare the soil to help your child succeed in a Suzuki experience.

1. Build Your Knowledge

Parents are integral to the success of the Suzuki process. If you start a young child in a Suzuki program, your role as a parent will be very active. Your knowledge and education about the Suzuki method and philosophy helps your child be more successful. Read about the philosophy and understand how and why your teacher does what he does. When you have captured this shared vision, you can work as a team to help your child succeed.

If your teacher requires you to attend parent introductory classes or read materials, she are not trying to make your life complicated. Your teacher wants to see you and your child succeed. Your teacher knows that if you take time to prepare for the experience, it makes a big difference.

Here are some resources to pursue:
2. Expose Your Child to Musical Environments

Many young children have an avid curiosity about music. Cultivate this curiosity. Let them see the artistry. Let them experience the joy of music. Whet the appetite.
  • Take your child to concerts. You can read about a mom’s trip to the symphony with her young daughters here
  • Let your child meet professional musicians
  • Expose him to instruments and classical music
  • Watch YouTube performances of great musicians
  • Check out classical music CD’s from your local library
  • Find the classical music radio station in your car
  • Watch other children playing instruments - modeling is powerful
We can’t love what we don’t know.

The mother in my studio who worked to cultivate her child’s interest told me that she was constantly playing cello YouTube recordings at home before they started lessons. She bought recordings of cello sonatas to play in the car on the way to preschool. One day in the car, her daughter exclaimed that the cello piece being played was going to be at her princess wedding!

3. Observe Lessons

Observing Suzuki lessons has many purposes. Some parents see this as a way to interview a teacher, which is important and valuable. It also allows your child a window into the process of acquiring musical skill. This can be especially useful to observe the same student over the course of couple of weeks of lessons. Does it take longer to master something than you might have thought? Observation also allows you and your child to see appropriate lesson expectations, etiquette, and how the studio runs.

Ella and her mom made the effort to observe 4 lessons before starting cello. Ella was very ready for “her turn!”

4. Listen to the Repertoire

Purchase the appropriate Suzuki CD volume 1. Even if you think you may start lessons in six months or a year or more, start listening to the songs. You are about to start learning a whole new language of music. Start listening to that language! Let your child fall in love with the songs and the sounds. This pays huge dividends later.

5. Heighten Anticipation

Parents can build anticipation and create motivation by how they talk about starting lessons. The respect that you demonstrate towards your teacher will be the model that your child follows. Consider how to share your excitement for the process. “I can’t wait for us to start our cello lessons! I am excited for us to learn together.” You can even prepare your child for some of the challenges, “I imagine that taking an instrument will be a lot like school - some parts you will love, and some parts may feel tricky.”

Rich Soil

Ultimately, a parent cannot control their child’s interest or force readiness. But a parent can influence their child and nurture a child’s musical curiosity. Actively cultivate the soil, and a child will have a more successful musical learning experience.

Taking these steps requires more time and work for the parent at the onset. It seems easier to just start lessons and not worry about these things. But be encouraged - the preparation will payoff.

Rich soil is the first step towards a rich harvest.

Consider how you can take an active role to enrich and cultivate the soil for your child’s musical experience.

What preparation will your child need in order to thrive? Leave a comment.

Guest post written by Kathleen Bowman. Kathleen is a performer and Suzuki cello teacher based in Saratoga Springs, NY. You can find out more about her on her website.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Principles of Sowing and Reaping for the Suzuki Parent: There Are No Shortcuts in Musical Training

No Shortcuts

When it comes to developing musical skill, there are no shortcuts. There are longer roads than others.
For example, if a student learns a technique incorrectly, she then has to spend valuable time and energy to re-learn it later.

Working with a competent teacher can help determine the straightest path and avoid time-wasting detours. Yet conversely, the insatiable search for the perfect teacher often has the opposite effect. Rather than fast-tracking a student, constantly switching teachers produces a lack of continuity that can hinder a student’s progression.

Still, there are no real shortcuts.

In our world of instantaneous information and fast food, the reality of the time, effort, and patience required of a parent and student on a musical journey astounds us. Why does it take so much work? As much as we may try to fight the reality, musical competence requires thoughtful and deep practice. Cultivating a precise and complicated skill demands focused practice over a significant length of time. Journalist Daniel Coyle beautifully articulates this necessary process of acquiring skill in his book The Talent Code.

If you have studied a musical instrument or your child has, you know this uncomfortable reality first hand.

Could Music Lessons Be More Like Soccer?

Enrolling a child in Suzuki music lessons differs from participating in a beginning sports league. A kindergartener can do well in soccer with a practice and game a week. A child can even take a number of months off after the fall and still do well in a spring league. Daily practice is not required for a five year old soccer participant to have an average game.

But a music student will not do well with one lesson and one practice a week. Take a number of months off of lessons and practicing, and significant rebuilding is necessary. Small amounts of smart, daily practice and listening are required to facilitate average musical competence.

Whereas beginning soccer is measured in weekly work, beginning music requires daily work. Sometimes the dailiness music requires is almost painful.

The Daily Grind

I encounter this reality in two spheres of my life. First, as a cellist, I am faced with this daily practice reality as I continue to develop my skill and prepare for performances. I have days where I wish that it was magically easier to learn new music. I wish that I could play well without the constant grooming required.

Second, as a Suzuki teacher, I see more and more parents of students frustrated by this reality. They expect that less time should be required, and simultaneously expect faster results. Parents want to see the process paying off, and they want it more quickly.

Sometimes, a parent’s expectation disregards the daily, normal process of skill development.

More Like Sowing and Reaping

I propose that enrolling your child in a Suzuki program is much more like the long-term process of a farmer who sows seeds and then avidly and faithfully works to care for those plants. He waters, fertilizes, weeds, prunes, and tends the young plants. Then after many months, or in our case, after many years, the farmer looks for a golden, ripe harvest.

The principles of sowing and reaping can change your perspective as a parent and bring more joy into the musical journey. The following blog posts will explore how these principles could positively affect your Suzuki experience.

Guest post written by Kathleen Bowman.  Kathleen is a performer and Suzuki cello teacher based in Saratoga Springs, NY.  You can find out more about her on her website.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Competitive Teaching

Every teacher likes to think that he or she is "the best."  Sure, there's always more to learn.  But a certain amount of ego becomes involved the more you teach.  After a few years and a few dozen students under your belt, it's only natural to feel that your process of trial and error has left you better than when you started.  And, arguably, it has.

The unwitting result of all this is a vein of competitiveness.  You become the clan leader of your little tribe of students and no one dare invade!  Every alternative idea is not only a threat but a potential blow to that ego.

The thing is, teaching should not be competitive at all.  Where did you get your first teaching ideas if not from other teachers?  The only way to keep the classroom engaging is by trying new approaches, seeing if it works and then making the approach your own.  This is the true trial and error process.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Slow 'n Steady

I consider myself to be a writer.  Like learning an instrument, writing takes time and experience in order to master.  The stringing of words together in a way that makes for a gripping tale takes practice.  Lots of practice.

The process of learning how to write is interesting to me.  I've tinkered around with stories since I was a teen--in the same way one might tinker around on the piano without any training--but I don't consider my formal training to have started until my adult years.

Again, like music, the life lessons taught by writing are gradual.  You don't just suddenly wake up one day with a Harry Potter or Moby Dick on your hands.  Each day you work at your story until one day you notice that the plot just seems to flow better now than it did a year or two years ago.

But the most significant thing that I've learned is the power of "slow 'n steady."  When I aggressively started my writing career the actual act of sitting down to write was entirely dependent on my "muse."  I had this idea in my head that a "good" writing session meant the words were pouring out and I got more than 1,000 of them down on the page.

What this led to was frustration.

I would sit down at the computer, write only a paragraph or two and then become overwhelmed by how much I had left to write before it was a "good" writing session.  As a result, days or weeks could slip by without much progress.

It took me a ridiculously long time to realize that all these lofty aspirations were my greatest enemies.

It finally occurred to me that it all came down to the math.  As it stood on the muse track I got 2,000 words down on a page in a good month.  2,000 words and tons of extra time spent putzing around on the Internet while I waited for motivation.

Now, I'm not an abnormally slow writer.  The thing that was holding me back was my unrealistic expectation of what should be done in a day.  But writing a story is not about the single day.  It's about every day.

2,000 words x 12 months = 24,000 words a year (the length of a novella)

If I lowered my goal and wrote an easily attainable 200 words every weekday:

200 words x 261 (number of weekdays in a year) = 52,200 (the length of a novel)

By dropping my unrealistic expectations and switching to small, easily attainable daily goals I more than doubled my writing output over the course of the year.

And I realized that the same holds true in music.  Waiting for the perfect practicing day where you are fed and happy and focused is a waste of time.  It's the small, daily accomplishments that are going to get the job done in the long term.